‘We have come to Georgia, because there are ideal conditions for us to stay. We could stay here without a visa for a year. That was enough to think and make a final decision about where to go next,’ says Moammad Saleh, a refugee from Iraq’s Mosul.
Moammad Saleh, a former military Armed Forces of Iraq, is now retired. This is a swarthy, gray-haired man with expressive eyes and a neat pointed beard; they say such people have a characteristic Arab appearance. Moammad arrived in Georgia together with his family in 2012, when another immigration law was operating in the country. At that time, foreign nationals could stay in the country without a visa for 12 months. The law attracted many refugees from Arab countries, which thus managed to avoid routine procedures to legitimize their stay. It was then when the Arab refugees began to arrive en masse to Georgia. They were mainly coming from Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. In the same year, about 450 Iraqis, 18 Syrian nationals, as well as 22 Egyptian addressed to the Ministry of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons of Georgia for the refugee status. At the same time, a year earlier, in 2011, no such cases were registered. The flow of refugees reached its peak in 2014 and then their number began to decline. The reason was the revision of immigration legislation by the Georgian authorities. Official Tbilisi has significantly tightened the rules of stay of foreign citizens in the country and the visa regime was introduced for citizens of a number of Middle Eastern countries.
Moammad remembers that he decided to apply for the refugee status in order to legalize their further stay in Georgia as soon as it became known that the migration law would be tightened. Moammad, his wife and his daughter, who was studying in one of Tbilisi universities, addressed to the Ministry for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. The response was positive. His friend Abu Basim, who also arrived in Georgia in 2012 from Iraq, was not as lucky as Moammad. He had been living here for a year when he applied for the refugee status, but he was refused. Basim Abu did not tempt fate a second time and left Georgia. However, according to Moammad, in some cases Arab citizens, who live in Georgia for one reason or another, have to leave the country against their will. Moammad once met with three students from Iraq who had been studying in one of universities in Tbilisi. At the end of 2013 they were going home to Iraq, as they had been doing before during the holidays. However, in a couple of weeks, the students were going back to Georgia, when the border guards, according to Moammad, refused them to enter the country without any explanation. Having returned to Iraq, students wrote about this to Moammad. They have not seen each other since then. By the way, the number of denials to enter the country has increased, explains Moammad, but the border guards do not give reasons to the citizens of some Arab states as to why they are not allowed to Georgia.
SECURITY AND PEACE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ANY MATERIAL PROSPERITY
‘War, chaos, despair – these are the main reasons that make us, the people of Iraq and Syria, to seek refuge in foreign countries,’ says Hussein, another refugee from Mosul. This large city in northern Iraq had a population of up to two million people a few years ago, but after it was captured by a terrorist organization ‘Islamic State’, approximately 500 thousand people had to leave the city. At that, many residents had begun to leave Mosul long before it was invaded by IS forces,’ says Hussein.
‘The city has been in trouble for several years,’ says Hussein. According to him, there is almost no operating businesses left in Mosul; it is impossible to engage in commercial activities, while the ‘power’ of the ‘Islamic State’ there allows just one area of business – peddling. Furthermore, it is not safe to live there. ‘Any person can be accused of spying for Iraq\’s official authorities and, as a result, lose the life, says Hussein. Nowadays, Hussein with his family huddles in a two-room apartment of his friend, the same Iraqi refugee in one of the central districts of Tbilisi. Hussein does not work; he is helped by family members who live in more or less wealthy cities of Iraq. He says that the Georgian authorities have allocated a monthly financial assistance to refugees, but it is not enough.
The Ministry of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons explained that a monthly financial benefit for refugees constitutes 40 GEL, as much as a refugee from Abkhazia and South Ossetia receives. The department has also provided small statistics, saying that from 2012 to 2015, 2.5 thousand asylum seekers arrived only from Iraq to Georgia, as well as about 200 people from Syria and about 150 from Egypt. However, the refugee status was given to less than half arrived. The Ministry has satisfied the petition of 563 applicants from Iraq, 10 Egyptian citizens and 85 citizens of Syria.
‘Islam is being compromised by terrorists; they create the image of Muslim migrants who suffer as a result. The authorities of many countries, in fact, treat us with suspicion,’ complains AVZ Gaitan Abdudzhabar, the director of the Arabic-language school ‘Babylon’, which has already been functioning for three years in Tbilisi. Among school students, there are children of refugees and businessmen from Arab countries. AVZ Gaitan himself is an intelligent man with a friendly face in a strict, perfect suit with a tie. He says that he had come to Georgia from Iraq a few years before. However, he did not apply for the refugee status; AVZ Gaitan received Georgian residence, as well as permission to open the school and he became engaged in the educational upbringing of children of their compatriots. Mainly citizens of Iraq study in ‘Babylon’. The man often goes to his homeland to bring manuals for school, where the education is carried out by a mixed Iraqi-Georgian programme. By and large, it is the Iraqi programme interspersed with local features: for example, the Georgian language and the history of Georgia are taught in ‘Babylon’. Moreover, his personnel also study the state language in the evenings. Pupils are issued certificates similar to Iraqi ones. The school conducts religious lessons; in fact, it is a teaching of Islam, but Christians students (the school has a few children from Christian Arab families) visit this lesson at their own will.
AVZ Abdudzhabar Gaitan says that there are many refugees among the teachers as well. They receive a minimum of 5 GEL per lesson, and the school itself operates at the expense of monthly fees, which are paid by students’ parents. The school principal proudly reported that children from poor families are educated for free.
‘A, e, i, o, u – repeat first grade pupils after an attractive teacher in a bright red hijab. Georgian vowels, because of the simplicity of their sound, are pronounced with ease, but to write them on the board is not that simple. Now and then, children habitually write in Arabic style – from right to left, and sometimes they read in the same manner. A lively curly boy at the board stubbornly pronounces a Georgian word ‘ia’ (a violet’) as ‘ai’, but soon he corrects his pronunciation. The teacher points out that a difficult Georgian language is easy for children. ‘They are small and learn quickly,’ she smiles.
The school, which has been operating for three years, has already carried out three graduations. ‘Most of the graduates, said AVZ Gaitan, have entered the Georgian universities and, as a rule, continue education in English.’ ‘Students do not hurry to return home,’ explains the director, ‘they feel safe in Georgia, and it is the most important thing for those who fled from the war in the Middle East.
MONEY, POLITICS AND SECURITY AGAIN
‘There are refugees and those who have arrived in Georgia with some cash savings,’ says a refugee from Baghdad, Abu Walid, ‘these people had been trying to sell some property in their homeland and some were lucky to sell the house, and others had some savings. Yet, the money is not that big, even when you sell the house, since the prices on the houses are low during the wartime,’ says a refugee. In Tbilisi, business-oriented people immediately tried to invest this money and opened small cafes, shawarma selling outlets, chilim bars, shops, and travel agencies for citizens of Arab countries. Nevertheless, most of the refugees refuse to name sources of income. Arab refugees live mainly in Tbilisi and Batumi, as a rule, in rented apartments. Those visitors from the Middle East, who surrender to authorities upon arrival in Georgia, are located in the Center of temporary residence in the village Martkopi, thirty-minute drive from Tbilisi. The center is under the Ministry of Refugees. Applicants for refugee status may remain in the Center all the time until their cases are being studied. Up to 50 people, most of them from the Arab states live in Martkopi.
‘There are as many opinions as there are people,’ says a refugee from Iraq, Hussein, breathing in fragrant smoke of hookah in one of Tbilisi chilim bars. ‘We, the Arabs, love talking about what is happening at home, in individual countries. Everyone has their own opinion and everyone supports one side or another, but we all unanimously agree that there is now a very bad situation in Syria and Iraq,’ concludes Hussein.
Arab refugees can talk about politics a lot and for a long time, but only among themselves. If a stranger is loomed on the horizon, the conversation is ceased immediately. The Arabs in the Eastern diplomacy are extremely cautious in their assessments and statements. They joke that every word dropped by them could be used against them and their loved ones. Yet, in every joke, as we know, only a fraction is a joke … They are cautious due to the fact that they do not live in their native country, they care because they fear for relatives and friends who stayed at home. Nevertheless, according to their mood, they can afford to talk openly on current issues.
‘In general, the Sunnis from Mosul could find common language with people from the ‘Islamic State’ easier than with the authorities of Iraq,’ suddenly admits Moammad Saleh, ‘you know, we and they – the Sunnis, we can understand each other. Yes, with the advent of the ‘Islamic state’ in Mosul, the city actually rose, and it is not safe there, but, at least, sectarian and ethnic strife stopped,’ says Moammed. Under the strife he primarily has in mind a long-term confrontation between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites. But in general, the residents of the city got out of the frying-pan into the fire,’ smiles the refugee. Living there is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous, because many people are trying to leave the country.
Having opened his heart, Muhammad says about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris: ‘I do not believe that it was done by people who believe in God. These terrorist attacks were committed in order to cast another shadow on us and Islam.’
‘Yes, a Muslim can do this, but a Muslim who believes in God,’ emphasizes Moammad,’ would never do this. He will never kill people.’
By the way, all the Arab refugees from Iraq and Syria, with whom we had a chance to communicate, together condemn any manifestation of violence. From the first minutes of conversation with them, you know how these people are tired of wars and wanderings, as well as mentioning IS, the so-called moderate Syrian opposition, Assad and the Iraqi government as well. Therefore, among the advantages of living in Georgia, such as friendly people, mild climate, affordable prices, which the Arab refugees list, they also mention distance from the events which unfold in the homeland. Yet, most important is the fact that the refugees in Georgia have received security.
‘You know, it\’s very important not to be afraid when your daughter leaves home for classes at the University. You know that nothing will happen to her, you know, that she would return home unharmed,’ admits Moammad, ‘after living in the city where there are frequent conflicts and acts of terrorism, where there is war, where family members never go out of the house one by one, it even seems as something incredible. Yes, it is very important…
Zviad Mchedlishvili, for newcaucasus.com